"My grandfather fought in the great war," the young girl said.
"What great war?" asked the boy.
"You know. When King Stephen the First invaded us."
"What King Stephen?"
"The King of Hungary, over a hundred years ago. He attacked us with thousands and thousands of soldiers. We were weak and divided, and we tried to unite against him, but he won anyway."
"How do you know all this?" asked the boy.
"My mom told me, and her father told her. He fought with the Ungri Nigri, the Black Hungarians," answered the girl.
"Wow," remarked the boy.
They were sitting on a low wall, next to the remnants of a marble statue, in the middle of the ruins of the old Apulum castra. Its front arches still stood, but there was no gate anymore, and vegetation had long before claimed the fort on the hill.
A few steps away, a flock of sheep was grazing carelessly. The ruins were a favoured playground for kids in Belleggrada. Neglected and uninhabited, they were infested with snakes and lizards, but if you looked hard enough, there were still silver coins to be found, even four centuries after the fort had been abandoned. Doina had never found such a coin herself, but she knew a boy who had -- or so he claimed.
Snakes and silver coins. That was what the great Apulum fort amounted to.
Down beyond the rolling green hills, the river Marosh sparkled in the summer sun like a long, fat, silver snake.
"I'm ten," announced the boy proudly and suddenly.
"I'm twelve," countered Doina.
There was another pause. A green lizard poked its head from under the fallen head of a statue, looked around, then quickly climbed over and disappeared into the grass on the other side.
"So who were the Ungri Nigri?" he asked.
"They were the best soldiers in all Vlachia and Transylvania," she said. "They fought in many wars and won them all. But they didn't like Jesus," she added.
The boy's eyes grew wide.
"They were Jews?!"
"No, silly. They were not Jews and they were not Christians. They did not believe in God at all."
The boy's eyes grew even wider.
"How can someone not believe in God?!"
"I don't know, but they didn't. Mom said that made them fierce and fearless. She said that after Stephen became king, he sent a bishop to convert them."
"And they refused."
"So what happened?"
The girl turned to face him, brought her hands up in front of her face, palms outward, fingers curled, and continued mischievously:
"The bishop talked and talked, but the Ungri didn't listen. So the bishop lined them up and pulled the eyes out of every other man in the line."
That impressed the boy. "Oh, shit!" he pondered in a loud whisper.
It never occurred to him how this band of fearless warriors stood in a docile line, waiting to be blinded by a single bishop. The bishop was next to God for him.
"But why didn't they want to believe? God would have saved them from blindness if they only obeyed the bishop, right?"
Doina shrugged and said nothing. The boy jumped off the ruined wall, picked up his shepherd's stick and began wielding it like a great sword.
"Then they could've gone on fighting and killing and destroying!" continued the boy, punching the marble statue with the wooden stick.
One of the dogs started to bark.
"You're scaring the sheep," said Doina, laughing.
The boy stopped, giving the headless statue a fearsome hairy eyeball.
"When I grow up, I wanna be a bishop," he declared.
That amused Doina even more.
"Bishops are weird," she said. "And besides, there's too many of them already."
The boy turned to face her. "How do you know?"
"Simple. There's no more land to give them, they have it all already."
"And how do you know that?"
"My mom told me that the Pope just made a bishop over a land that's just been discovered."
"I don't know. Across some really, really big water."
"Who discovered it? The Hungarians?"
"No, the Vikings."
The boy had heard of the Vikings. There had been Vikings in Transylvania, too. They'd only left charred bodies and houses in their wake.
"Oh, shit," he whispered again.
"Yeah. And the Vikings aren't even Christian. So some Viking named Erik found some new land, and the Pope immediately made a bishop for it. So imagine how long the waiting line is to be a bishop."
The boy considered for a few moments, then asked:
"What's even greater than a bishop?"
"I don't know. The Pope, I guess."
"Can I be the Pope?"
"You don't wanna be the Pope, you silly. The Pope is not as powerful as you think."
"But he's God's man on Earth, and he's bigger than the bishops, so how can he not be powerful? I bet he's big as a bear and has an axe as tall and wide as a man," the boy said.
"I doubt it. Not this Pope, anyway. My mom said some king took him hostage and kept him in a prison for four months."
That left the boy gaping again.
"The Pope?! Hostage in prison?! For four months?!"
"Oh, yeah," said Doina. "Because he didn't want to make the king, King," she said, somehow managing to pronounce the capital letter.
"I mean, this king was obviously king of his kingdom, but unless the Pope makes you King, you're gonna have trouble with the Pope's bishops and whatnot," she explained.
This scenery of great powers interacting with each other really sparked the boy's imagination. He could see giants shooting flames towards each other, kings and Kings and Popes and bishops and blinded warriors, in a fiery land over a background consisting mainly of fire.
"Wow," he said. "I wanna be King."
"Well, good luck," she said. "And I wanna fly like a bird."
The boy started pounding the statue again, twisting in place, jumping around, using all sorts of imaginary battle techniques and screaming:
"Take that! And that!"
The dog started barking again.
"Cut it off, will you," said Doina. "I told you you're scaring the sheep!"
The boy hit the statue a few more times, then stopped to catch his breath.
But the dog kept on barking. And then the other dog joined in.
A great ribbon of yellow light appeared from the east, hanging on nothing but the blue sky itself and sweeping the green hills. It hopped from place to place, advancing towards the ruins, the flock of sheep and the two kids. Doina saw it and gave out a cry.
"Simion, look out! Get out of there!" she shouted.
The little boy raised his eyes, startled. He saw the great ray of yellow light and froze on the spot.
"Hide, Simion! Hide!" shouted Doina as she jumped off the wall and knelt next to it, on the other side.
Simion did not budge. Mouth agape, unable to move a muscle, he stared at Doina as the light engulfed him. For a few moments, he was turned into gold. Then the ribbon moved on, and the boy fainted in the tall, soft grass.
Doina curled down, at the bottom of the thick wall, shut her eyes and started to sob. She felt alone and afraid. A wave of panic came to her, and she began to pray to control it: Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur Nomen Tuum, adveniat Regnum Tuum...
Then, through her eyelids, she saw bright light. She opened one eye and saw that the grass and rocks and the feet under her had turned into gold.
Fiat voluntas Tua...
And then her feet turned orange, and then red, and then dark red, until the light turned into shadow and the stones became grey and then black, and then blacker than black, while everything else around her stayed the same. And then there was a black flash.
A little later, the boy woke with a start and stood up. The sheep were quietly grazing, just a few more steps lower down the hill. The two dogs were still guarding them, also silently doing their jobs. He looked towards the sun; he couldn't have been out for more than a few moments. He looked around for his friend, then searched every corner of the ruins, inspected each wall and boulder, shaded his eyes and looked in all directions around him down the hill.
Doina was gone.